Pacing your RPG

According to some stats I saw online (someone quoted them, I looked them up and confirmed, then wrote this idea in my to do list before promptly deleting any of my validation work and references…), the average D&D play instance lasts for seven, four-hour sessions. Play instance is a tem I’ll use to differentiate between sessions, adventures, and campaigns. For our purposes, our Play Instance is the same group of players getting together to play the same characters with the same DM. It ends when someone gets bored, and wants a new character, the group gets bored and wants a new adventure, the DM gets bored and wants to run something else, or people’s life situation changes, and they can’t make it to sessions consistently. 

Photo by cottonbro studio on

The 7X4 framework sounds fair to me, and as someone who puts a lot of effort into pacing my sessions, we end on high notes, and cliffhangers, and not mid-combat. I thought I could take a chance and prepare a pacing guide for folks. My goal here, is to help DMs and adventure writers prep tight modules or campaigns threading the needle running overlong while players are looking to wind down and stretching an idea that’s run its course while you hurriedly prep next week’s session as soon as the prior ends and you’re all out of ideas. 

The 4-hour session is very common, but I run games with 1, 2, 8, and even 12-hour time slots. My personal favorite is the 8-hour game, but the 4 hour is much more popular with online games, and easier to book. Regardless, you can prep the same 28 hours of gametime however you want to break it up. You might be challenged to get 28X1 hour sessions in (7 months of the same story will probably lead to someone’s life changing and the game falling out of priority), but 14X2 hours is reasonable with 3 months. If you’re like me, an 8-hour game is done in 3 sit downs (one month), but I like a 2-3 week gap between games too, so we are still looking at 2-3 months, which seems to be the sweet spot. We are going to do our math and planning assuming the 7X4 set up, but when prepping, you can smash multiple 4-hour sessions together, or cut them in half. If you do, you will want to pay attention to pacing. Ending a session mid-combat is going to result in people forgetting buffs in play, tactics they were working on, and how many hit points they had. 

Disclaimer: Any article with an RPG advice bent always does this, so people must need to hear it. Have fun. These are guidelines, and if they don’t work for you, don’t use them. That said, hopefully this structure gives you something good to use. [insert a bunch more waffely, blame averting statements so I don’t have to take a stance]. Obviously, a lot of this advice doesn’t apply if you’re not running adventures or campaigns, but I do still think the Session Pacing will.

Session Pacing 

Before we get into pacing your adventure, we should talk pacing your session. Each session, you want to roll some dice, but you also want to ensure there is room for some roleplay and free form stuff too. This guide should give you a rough timeline to pace your session so you end on a high note. 

Your first hour in a session should be about setting the stage, getting into the game, some roleplay, travel, and exploration. The midpoint of the session is when combats occur, if you have any. These are going to be a crunchy big event, and you’re probably looking to drop your middle two hours on this. If you aren’t doing fights, you should have something that takes 2 hours or so of fun, mechanical interactions. These should let the players use their character sheet to prompt them to roll dice using powers. Maybe they are coordinating exactly how much earth they can move, with a bunch of castings of move earth so they can sink a wall of a castle, or burrowing with wildshape, rigging and dodging some traps, or some elaborate social combat you’ve house ruled in. Then, you wrap it up with another hour or so of wind down. This is the wrap up, where you tie off loose threads and get a feel for what you think the players will do next week. 

For a four-hour session, consider this structure below

  • Pregame: I recommend showing up a half hour to an hour early and encouraging players to do so as well. This way, when they are late, you’re fine. Use this time to make sure folks actually leveled up, have dice and character sheets, and get some dinner ordered (or whatever). 
  • 10 Min Before: Have a player recap the last session. After they do, you can add any elements you think are important, but missed, or correct anything they noted wrong that their characters would know are wrong.
  • Hour 1 Setting the Stage: Kickoff. This is where you establish what’s going to happen this session. You don’t directly say it, but this is where the players are going to roleplay with the duke, and get the quest kicked off, shopping done, mystery investigated or the woods trekked through. Don’t jump right into rules that require lots of mechanics, but don’t forbid die rolling or anything. This is going to be where your players plot and plan, and get into it with NPCs or the environment. As they do this, you can also discreetly modify combat encounters and such based on where they are actually going. Especially if it’s different from what you prepped or expected. If John is out today for his nephews Bar Mitzvah, and he forgot to tell you until last minute. Mazel Tov, but you’re going to use the first hour to thin out the number of monsters per fight, and since his PC was the only one with teleport, you need to figure out how they will get around that. 
  • Hour 2-3 Rolling Dice: This is the part of the game where you’re throwing combats in, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’ve got some complex mechanical rules, this is where you stick them. I define complex mechanics as mechanics that usually take about an hour to resolve. A fight is the classic D&D example, but your game might have social combat rules, mystery investigation, or elaborate exploration or whatever (I’m going to shorten this to fights for ease of language). In my experience any fight takes an hour. An easy fight might be 30 minutes, but you should plan for the hour. Some fights take longer. If you’re crawling a dungeon and picking up mid-dungeon, you might shorten the Setting the Stage portion, but you shouldn’t skip it, it’s a good time to help people get into the game and relax. Keep running these back to back, and don’t start a new fight (or whatever) if you are in the last hour. Move to the “Wrapping Up” phase. It’s better to end 20 minutes early than 10 minutes late. If you’re late, people are packing up, rushing through that last combat, and you miss the actual Wrapping Up step. Of note, a boss fight is almost always 2-2.5 hours in D&D. That’s half or more of a session. Keep that in mind if you’re on hour 2.25, and thinking about starting one.
    • Tip. If you’re running a fight and people are getting bored look for ways to end it. Don’t end it early because the PCs have obviously won, if they are having fun. That’s silly, you’re ending fun. End it if the players are bored (even if they are not winning). Foes can start to surrender or flee, and you might reconsider leaving that foe at 2HP vs just letting him drop. 
  • Hour 4 Wrapping Up: The Wrapping up end of session is a great time to encourage your 5e players to take a short rest. It signifies that your PCs are taking a break, and is a nice pause at the end of the session. You can obviously take a short rest whenever, but if they do it during hour 2, you might consider doing it as a “OK, you set up camp, take an hour, spend some hit dice and lets get back into it” vs when done at 3 hours and 23 min, you might use it as a chance for the players to roleplay a bit and the PCs to decompress. If you just had a boss fight (or are about to have one) it’s a great time to let them RP a bit with the defeated (or about to be battled) enemy. Let them go back to town and chat up the quest giver, or do a shopping montage. You might shorten this one now and again for overflow fight time, especially mid-dungeon crawl, but you should make sure you do get wrap up time in. Even if it’s 15 minutes because you mis-timed a fight’s duration. 
  • Going Home: Don’t let people leave without 2 things.
    • A direct “So you guys expect the next session you’re going to do ___, right?”. Be direct. This lets you make sure you prep the right stuff. Prepping the wrong stuff is brutal. 
    • A commitment to attend the next session, and agreement when it is. “See you guys next week at 6” or “Hey let’s schedule the next session. Does the 3rd at 4PM work?” Don’t let people leave if the next session isn’t booked, or you won’t have a next session.

For longer sessions, you are going to expand the Rolling Dice section. If you’ve got an 8-hour session, you can probably get through a whole 5 room dungeon in one shot. That said, you may want to consider adding spurts of non-dice RP to break it up. If every session is a marathon of 6 hours of combat, people can get bored. 

Photo by lil artsy on

For shorter sessions, you may want to drop the Setting the Stage and Wrapping Up sections to a half hour, and I’d recommend shortening the Setting the Stage portion more than the Wrap Up (maybe 15 min vs 30 min). If you plan for an hour of Wrap Up, but a fight runs long, that buffer time can get cut short without much impact to flow. If you plan to cut the Wrap Up, you better have combat pacing down. A 2-hour session doesn’t give a lot of wiggle room for a fight to run long, considering some fights are already 2 hours. When I run a 1-hour session, It’s 5 min of recap, Rolling Dice for one fight and as much wrap up as we can fit in. You really can’t prepare for a fight to last less than an hour, unless you think it’s a total steam roll, in which case, you might skip the dice altogether. 

Adventure Pacing

Photo by Pixabay on

For our purposes, we are differentiating between Adventures and Campaigns. An adventure is a single thread that has a clear start and end, while a campaign tends to run through more levels, and consist of a series of adventures. 

First and foremost, I strongly recommend milestone leveling. You can use XP based leveling if you want, but since we are planning the entire adventure, you’re going to be prepping xp budgets per encounter and scenario so that your PCs level at notable events in your story. That’s just Milestones with Extra Steps. You are also going to turn off random encounters. This is an adventure, and we already agreed the game will fall apart after 28 hours. Random encounters don’t help that and they do suck down time. A session that’s dominated by a random encounter feels like a miss, and you run the risk of players feeling like things are aimless. They can be great for open ended games, but that’s not what we are doing here.

Using our rubric, of seven, four hour sessions, we can ensure that story beats happen at a good pace. Having that defined end period lets you apply story writing systems and tools. We can time our major plot beats to occur at planned intervals. You can base it off a Story Circle, or Hero’s Journey, or whatever story writing framework you like. Here is what I use for RPG adventure’s, which have key notable differences from single character fiction. 

  • Session 0: Session 0 is invaluable. You can google all the stuff that should go here, so I’ll let you.
    • That said, you should also use this as a chance to explain to the players what sort of game you’re running. Tell them it’s a murder mystery, so they don’t roll up with a 8 int/wis/cha barbarian with no skills. 
    • Get buy in, so you can jump right in, and don’t have to fight with PCs that wouldn’t go on the adventure prepped, and players who are confused on what you want them to do. 
    • Or if it’s truly freeform, tell them that, so they can come with strong motivation and goals. 
    • I recommend having a session 0 in a very casual manner. Maybe go out to dinner as a group or something. 
    • If your group has been playing for a long time, you can potentially do this via text on something like discord, but really only if you all know the lines and veils for your group and have a shorthand about tone. “I’m playing someone who would be right at home with the Doom Patrol” has a very different connotation to my college group than it would to someone I just met. (It was the name for a subset of our 9 man party who acted as comic relief and side quest generator when the DM needed bad decisions made). 
    • It also lets you determine how the PCs know one another. Which they should. “You meet in a bar” is a brutal first session, as folks try to build bonds and improv how they become fast friends. Just do it ahead of time. 
  • Session 1 The Adventure Begins: This is the session that kicks off the game. Your players have bought into the premise, and know that they are going to be doing so it’s time to kick it off. You introduce major NPCs and quest givers, and spend your first hour setting the stage. Then you move into an easy guaranteed win Fight to let players learn how their characters work, and work with one another mechanically. If you’ve got time, you might even do two. This should start with a straightforward quest, and the session should end with your players having shopped, researched, and whatevered so they can go on the quest proper at the start of the next session. Frodo’s about to leave The Shire. 
  • Session 2 The Obvious Adventure: This session should be the one where your players go do the thing. You can travel to, and start your first 5 room dungeon. If investigation needs to be done to find the dungeon, do that here. You shouldn’t finish the dungeon, but this should be a combat heavy session. You teased them a bit in the first session, and this is the time when they should get into it. Wrap up here should be with the players feeling like they are in the meat of the game.
  • Session 3 The Twist: This session is the end of your first 5 room dungeon. The focus should be your first boss fight, but the wrap up should reveal the twist. The twist is, the adventure is bigger than you were initially sold. Maybe the players find a journal in the loot, explaining that the boss is a henchman, or maybe the evil ritual is already complete. Whatever your twist, the adventure doesn’t end here. Be careful though, you want the players to feel like what they have done so far doesn’t matter. Maybe they defeated a general, but not the true villain. They saved this part of the world, but have to travel to another and solve that one too. At the end of this session your players should level up.
  • Session 4 Recovering: Your players are recovering from your twist. Maybe they go inform the quest giver, or other NPCs for guidance, or maybe they have to travel to a new location. Either way, this session is an hour or two recovering and traveling, and then they jump into your 2nd 5 room dungeon. In this case, they are probably only getting one room in, if they get into it at all. You might want to consider a travel fight here if they have to get from point A to B. You probably do want to include a small fight here, just so you get people a chance to roll some dice.
  • Session 5 A Second Twist: Your players should be finishing the 5 room dungeon, during or right after room 5, you should drop the hammer. It’s even bigger still. That said, you can’t send your players to another dungeon. This is the last twist, and you should clearly point your players at the actual boss. You’re going to run most of a 5 room dungeon here, and this is your framework. It might even just be a 6th room. Whatever twist is, At the end of this session your players should level up. Even if your PCs haven’t finished the 5 room dungeon and you are behind. You want them to have leveled up twice during the adventure, and it’s no fun to level up, and not be able to use your cool powers. This gives 2 sessions of cool new powers.
  • Session 6 The End: This is the final session. You start with travel and twist recovery as normal, but you should draw this out a bit. The final fight is a big one, and you should make sure the players have long rested and are fully prepped for it. The final fight should be most of the session. 
  • Session 7 Into the Sunset: Riding into the sunset is great, but this session is really planned for overflow. You, the DM, know you prepped 6 sessions of encounters, but you also know stuff happens. This is the session designed as a catchall so you aren’t trying to squeeze one more in before everyone goes on week long vacations for the summer and you can’t play for 3 months. That said, this is also the session where you have the players recover from the final fight, and they should probably return to the quest giver and main NPCs for one final goodbye. I like to end these sessions by asking the players to tell me what their character goes on to do. What’s next? We aren’t playing that game, but it’s fun to think about and ensures a satisfying conclusion. If your Adventure is going to become a Campaign, have them level up again.

5 Room Dungeons

Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on

Let’s talk 5 room dungeon pacing. This is a common framework that works really well in the modern 5e landscape. You can usually bang them out in 2-3 sessions, and they are a tight frame to work with. Here’s how I do them. 

  • Approach: The approach is where you foreshadow the dungeon. You trek into the mountains, and see signs of orc camps. You go to the lake, and realize you have to swim to get in. You pass by lava geysers shooting steam. Regardless, you tease what buffs the party needs to prep, and the themes for the location of the encounter. 
  • First Room: The first room is an entry room. These should be scouts, who keep watch, and an easy fight. You use this as a chance to show off what sort of tactics the enemy within the dungeon will use. If it’s goblins, you throw a couple cowardly goblins here. If your goblins are Different, show us how. Do they have glue pots they throw, spellcasters, poison darts? Have one of them here along with a couple of weaker troops. For every 4 PCs, you want a Different foe, and you want (# of PCs)-2 guards. The PCs should outnumber a weaker foe here. Leaving this room should probably have a trap or alarm of some sort. 
  • Second Room: This room is your first real fight. You want a Different foe per 2 PCs, and mooks equal to the number of PCs. If the PCs fall for the trap at the end of room 1, this fight is full force. If they avoid it, let the players get the drop on them, or some sort of major advantage making the fight easy. This room has two paths leaving it. Leave clues about what is down both paths and let your players pick which to do. One should be a harder physical fight, against a big mini-boss, and the other should be a trap or social encounter that has a weaker fight behind it. You might also want to include some special terrain in this fight, foreshadowing Room 5.
  • Third Room: The third room has a mini-boss in it. This is some single foe who is big and tough, but fights alone. For goblins an ogre works well here. Maybe it rents a room, maybe it’s mind controlled, or maybe it’s bribed. Either way, it’s big and lumbering, and tangentially related. You could also have goblins who trapped a giant spider, or an owlbear, or some other big dumb monster. 
  • Fourth Room: The fourth room is a puzzle room. You might put a temple here, and have the foes all be priests, but leave some cultist robes in room 2 allowing for trickery. You might have the barracks be here, and the enemies all be drunk, allowing for some nice stealth or RP solving. Either way, this should be an easy encounter, if you do the non-combat thing, or a hard challenge if you don’t. Maybe it’s a narrow rope bridge over a lava flow, with 2 guards at the far side. If they catch you, this is a lot more challenging when they cut the ropes.
  • Fifth Room: The final room is the boss’s room. The goblin queen lives here, along with a Different troop per 3 PCs, and an equal number of mooks to PCs. This should be a big fight. If the Different troops are melee brutes, she’s a spellcaster. If they are spellcasters, she’s a devious rogue. Whatever it is, she has the Different troops, not because she is Different+, but because they shore up her weak spot. This is also where the good loot lives, and you should for sure put some cool terrain here to protect it as well as make the fight more tactical.

Campaign Structure

So you’ve run some 5 room dungeons, and a couple of adventures, but you want more. Maybe you wrapped your first adventure, followed my advice, were praised as the greatest, and the Sunset portion ended with players disappointed it’s over. Take a couple of weeks, and let’s get your campaign going. 

I prep campaigns in two different styles. My preference is the method I call the 13 Treasures but I’ll also discuss Scaling Spiral. Both work, but have key differences. You can even have a Scaling Spiral where a few stops are mini-13 Treasures style adventures. You can run other style games, but at the end of the day, these are the two frameworks I’ve seen that actually give results with satisfied players. Both of these approaches are designed for Campaigns, not singular adventures. A campaign is a series of linked, related adventures. 

The 13 Treasures

Photo by Superstarry Thana on

The 13 treasures is an artifact hunt. The players need to collect a bunch of stuff before someone else does. The DM should throw out what the 13 are, and legitimate hooks about where and how to get them should be provided right at the front. The players should have their pick of which to chase down, and the DM should behind the scenes scale the difficulty based on the player’s level when they start the quest. Yes, that’s sneaky and not fair. Fight me. Each of these treasures is its own adventure, and should follow that structure. To figure out how many treasures you need, you need to know how many levels you want your campaign to go. You can use the chart below.

# TreasuresLevels Spanned
NAIf you want less than 9 levels, consider running a singular adventure, or two of them back to back

To run a 13 Treasures style campaign, you need a couple of things. 

  • A Rival: Someone has to go get the treasures if the PCs don’t. This person or group should be antagonistic, and probably working at odds with the PCs. You can introduce a couple of these if you want, but one should be obviously the lead rival.
  • 13 Treasures: Just like their namesake, you need treasures. Specifically, you need an odd number of treasures, somewhere between 5 and 13. 13 is probably the most you want to include before things are unwieldy. 5 is the least, if you want this to be a campaign and not a straightforward adventure. You need an odd number of treasures, so it’s impossible to tie, forcing an inevitable conflict between two (or more) sides.
  • Failure: The Rivals shouldn’t oppose the PCs at every single treasure. They should show up at the first treasure for sure, and then every other treasure the PCs are going to seek (or if you have 13 treasures, maybe a little less frequently). What are the rivals doing when not interacting with the PCs? Well they are completing quests. Everytime the PCs get a treasure, the rivals should get one too, closing off that quest. So if you’ve got 13 treasures, the PCs go on 7 adventures (each of which levels you 3 times, for a total of …. 21 levels, would you look at that.)
  • Success: Each treasure should give measurable, noticeable success. A villainous plot that requires all 13 pieces to succeed is hard. The PCs get one from the temple of legend, throw it into the ocean, and move on with their life, never telling anyone what they did with it. But if the rival gets power from each treasure, and so do the PCs, collecting them is its own reward. Even if having all 13 is the goal, having 12 of the 13 is still pretty powerful.
  • Differences: Each treasure’s quest should be different. Noticeably so. A ruined ziggurat in the jungle is fun. 13 of them are boring. Each treasure should be held by noticeably different guardians in noticeably different locations. Buried pyramid, hidden jungle zigguraut, temple at the bottom of the ocean, the underdark, some weird plane, whatever. Mix it up.

To turn a stand alone adventure, into a 13 Treasures Campaign, simply have the final twist at the end of session 5 be that there are 12 more treasures. Or you can have the quest giver say something ominous, and wonder about the other 12 treasures and send the PCs on their way.

The Scaling Spiral

Photo by Pixabay on

In the Scaling Spiral, the players have one goal, and there isn’t much ambiguity about it. Instead, it’s a much more straightforward adventure, and the excitement comes from that feeling of “What could top this”. Frodo gets the ring to Rivendell, only to find he has to be the one to take it all the way to Mt. Doom. The ring to Rivendell is a mind blowing quest to a hobbit whose never left the shire. Going to Mt. Doom is unthinkable. And then he’s going to the Grey Havens? He didn’t even know that was a thing… and so on. A Scaling Spiral should end each adventure with the players saying “I don’t know where you can go from here”. Think of one of those videos that zoom from earth to the galaxy. If you want a grounded campaign that stays low fantasy, this is not the option for you. By definition, things need to get out of control, and you need to let your PCs do wild things. Maybe finding an artifact, becoming planeswalkers, or something like that. Only to then do it again. And again. Each spiral should break your game in half, and the more you lean into that the more fun folks have. If you fight it, players get the feeling you don’t want them to improve, and start to get bored. Each adventure should be its own spiral. 

I recommend the following breakdown and points to use as examples. 

Adventure ArcFate of the ___ is at StakeExample
Level 1-3Thorpe Simple farmers fight off goblins.
3-6City [Monster] backed bandits are plundering major trade routes.
6-9MetropolisA thieves guild is planning to ____
9-12Kingdom The neighboring kingdom has declared all out war. 
12-15PlaneSomeone opened a portal to hell.
15-18PlanesA band of Yugoloths have taken control of the river Styx and are using it to stage attacks all throughout the planes.
18-20+DivinityAttack and dethrone god. 

To turn an adventure into a Scaling Spiral Campaign, you simply have the next quest be a  noticeable step up. The quest giver reveals the macguffin from the first adventure is actually an artifact, or bestows some higher power, or whatever reward is the thing that steps them up, to match the new foe. 

  • You three farmers have great potential, here is a collection of magic weapons, go be adventurers
  • You took your magic weaponry and slew the beast backing the raiders, but now we need to find the head of the thieves guild before they can kill the king.
  • The king thanks you and needs your help. The necromancer nation to the south is going to declare war. 
  • Thanks for averting the war, but unfortunatly the head of necromancer cult just opened a portal to hell and devils are spewing forth. 
  • You got that portal closed, but the reason the devils came here was to plunder supplies for their war with the yugoloths. P
  • You’ve planehopped to find the yugoloth’s funder, and unfortunately its Lolth. Go kill the spider goddess. Remember when you were a farmer?

3 thoughts on “Pacing your RPG

  1. This is pretty incredible. What adjustments would you make for a game that’s more socially focused, like Vampire: The Masquerade? Or Exploratory/Investigatory, like Call of Cthulhu?


    1. Glad you enjoyed it. My VTM experience is pretty dated, (last played 2008 or so) but I think for other games the keynote is to find the “big thing” like combat for D&D, and plan around that. In Shadowrun for example, it’s the prep for the heist. A fight is over in a couple of (admittedly complex) die rolls, but the plotting can take the bulk of a session.

      Regardless, I’d identify that big time consuming, mechanical focal point of the game, and sub it in for fights in D&D in the examples.

      This paragraph from the article highlights it well I think
      “Your first hour in a session should be about setting the stage, getting into the game, some roleplay, travel, and exploration. The midpoint of the session is when combats occur, if you have any. These are going to be a crunchy big event, and you’re probably looking to drop your middle two hours on this. If you aren’t doing fights, you should have something that takes 2 hours or so of fun, mechanical interactions. These should let the players use their character sheet to prompt them to roll dice using powers.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: